Sanford Institute of Philanthropy Blog

How to Make Your Nonprofit a Champion of Ethics

Two online fundraisers
We’ve all heard this before: it’s a gray area.

While the "gray area" conundrum may be true in many different situations, it’s important to remember that leading a successful nonprofit means leading in ethical behavior as well. We have a responsibility as fundraisers to promote ethical behavior and inspire others to do the same, and there’s nothing gray about this dedication. So how do we accomplish this? Check out our ABC tips below to learn how!

Tip #1: Follow the guidelines for ethical behavior

There are three main guidelines for promoting ethical behavior that can help you make more ethically-driven decisions and assess behaviors from others.

Universal code

Similar to the Golden Rule, the universal code calls for fundraisers to play by the “same rules” they expect others to follow in a similar situation. If you wouldn’t want someone to behave a certain way towards you, try to avoid that behavior yourself.

Truthfulness

It can be difficult to be fully honest with donors, and stretching the truth about where funds are going can feel a little too easy sometimes. However, this kind of behavior doesn’t foster trust with a donor, so try to focus on being honest whenever possible!

Personal accountability

We need to accept personal responsibility for our own actions, rather than pointing fingers or throwing others “under the bus.” Personal accountability is a sign of strength and can elicit trust and respect from your donors, leaders, and colleagues.

Tip #2: Consider the social media connection

Social media is an extremely important part of engaging the community around you, but it can also be difficult to maintain ethical practices in this virtual space. Social media should exist to promote your cause, not detract from it. After all, consider this quote from Dr. David Lill and Jennifer Lill-Brown, authors of Cause Selling: the Sanford Way:

“It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation and only a second to destroy it.”

For this reason (and many others, of course), focus on your social media strategy and how it can best serve your cause. Consider offering a training session to your team on best social media practices, and develop an online code of conduct to avoid any misconceptions about what acceptable behavior looks like. In fact, my dad used to tell me as a kid to never write or say anything that I wouldn’t want published in a newspaper for the world to see. This is a good rule of thumb to follow as you share content on your social media pages, both for your personal profiles and your organization’s platforms.

You can even implement ethics-related campaigns that display your organization’s commitment to ethical behavior. For instance, you can choose to celebrate those in the philanthropic world who behave ethically and with integrity or share stories of strong morals and ethical behavior in your organization.

Tip #3: Implement an ethical checklist within your organization

Let’s face it: we usually want our teams to perform their responsibilities autonomously, which gives you the chance to focus on your own tasks and empowers your employees to make decisions that work best for your organization. However, this leaves a lot of “gray area” for your team members, especially while many of us work remotely right now. To help alleviate any potential stress or confusion in this area, consider implementing the ethical checklist below that can helps support your team and empower them to make ethical decisions:

A Five-Question Ethics Checklist

  1. Is it legal? Look at the law and other standards
  2. Is it ethical? Look at the code of conduct.
  3. Would I want someone else to act this way toward me?
  4. How would I explain my actions to someone else?
  5. How will it make me feel about myself?

Tip #4: Evaluate your organization’s biggest ethical influences

There are two main ethical influences within each organization: your code of conduct and your leaders. 

As I mentioned before, your organization’s code of conduct can play a huge role in supporting ethical behavioral within your nonprofit. You can implement a statement of values to help guide your employees, and you can even publish clearly-defined ethical codes, compliance programs, and well-defined expectations. The goal here is to be as clear as possible to avoid any ambiguity or confusion. Plus, having a clear code of conduct can help your team celebrate those ethical wins in your organization and deter potential misconduct. Not sure how to create a code of conduct? Consider these five questions below, and aim to answer these within your guidelines!

  • What are some of the common minor offenses that must be reported?
  • How often should employees report ethical concerns and to whom?
  • How are those concerns address – formally, informally, or not at all?
  • Are all employees familiar with the ethical guidelines?
  • Do employees feel able to report violations without retaliation?

Your leaders play an important role in your organization’s ethical practices as well. Many organizational cultures are defined from the top down, meaning that your teams and employees are likely to turn to their supervisors and leaders for signs on how they should behave or how they should make decisions. If your leaders are not following your nonprofits code of conduct or statement of values, this can send mixed, confusing signals to your team and can potentially promote undesired behavior. The Ethics Resource Center designates an organization as promoting a strong ethical culture when “top management leads with integrity, supervisors reinforce ethical conduct, peers display a commitment to ethics, and the organization integrates its values in day-to-day decision making.” This means that nonprofit leaders should not just focus on whether an action is legal but should also take into account whether that action is fair and honest.


Want to learn more about improving your nonprofit organization? Check out our webinar on When IT Hits the Fan: Everyone’s Role in Crisis Communications!

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